Tips for PhD students focus on how to finish a PhD. But what about the start of a PhD?
All beginnings are tough. It takes a while till you get the hang of your new situation. The beginning of your PhD is no exception.
I still remember how I felt at the beginning of my PhD. During the first week I was completely lost. I didn’t know what I was doing or what I was going to do.
Somehow I felt like a little baby. When a colleague would ask ‘what is your PhD research about?’ Having no clue, I would just reply like a baby ‘dada bababaaa boo boo’.
Then I thought that in 4 years I should become a world expert in ‘dada bababaaa boo boo’ and I cried inside.
I needed to get a key to enter the building and I didn’t even know where the concierge was (which happens to be quite close to the main door, duh!).
At the end of the week, a friend would ask ‘what did you do in your first week of the PhD?’. I could only shrug my shoulders and say ‘I don’t know’.
I felt like a kid who had lost his mom in a mall and could only sit down, suck his thumb and cry.
So what should you do at the beginning of your PhD?
What are the priorities of the first week of a PhD?
The goal of the first days as a PhD student is to get ready as soon as possible to do your research. Get rid of all the formalities, learn the research basics, discover your new field of research.
The sooner you are up to speed the sooner you will get your first results.
‘But I don’t know where to start’, you might say.
Let me help you.
Here’s a list of tips for PhD students. If I had to start a PhD again I would definitely follow them during my first week.
Tips For PhD Students On Their First Week
Tips For PhD Students #1: Find A Coffee Mug
We will begin the caffeine intake in a liquid form. For this you will need a mug. If this is not enough you can take your caffeine as tablets.
This is the first of my tips for PhD students, why? I would like to lie you and say your PhD will be relaxed and you will sleep 8 hours each night. The truth is that sometimes only caffeine will keep you from falling asleep on your keyboard. The sooner you are ready, the sooner you will be productive.
Tips For PhD Students #2: Get Your Desk & Chair
Or at least figure out where you are going to be siting.
This is your holy place. You decide what tacky decoration to display on your desk. Einstein bobble-head? Why not?
Since you will spend lots of hours on your chair, try to choose a comfortable one. You know, ergonomic and with lower back support. Who am I kidding? You will get a chair that has ben stumbling around in your department for at least 20 years.
Tips For PhD Students #3: Do The Paperwork
Probably at the beginning of your PhD you will have to fill in several forms, give your personal details and contact information of some relative to pick you up when you pass out in the lab.
The sooner you get these out of your way the sooner you will start doing science.
Tips For PhD Students #4: Have Access To University Building
The building where you will be working might have some security measures. Make sure you are allowed to be in its premises, also outside working hours. What did you just say? Yep, you are also going to work in the weekends. Or did you think that cell culture would grow healthy without mommy feeding it regularly?
Tips For PhD Students #5: Be Computationally Ready
You are going to need a computer. If you are entitled to one, then order it. If not, bring your laptop. In any case the first weeks you will be working from your laptop while your new computer arrives.
Second most important thing (computationally) is to have access to the Internet. Make sure your computer has wired and wifi connection in campus.
Printers are the third most important thing to arrange. Make sure you can print, that you know where the printer is (they die them in the most absurd places) and learn where they keep printing paper.
Other computational arrangements include: get access to shared drives, buy a second screen if you can (your productivity will benefit from it), install software that your colleagues are using and the 3 mandatory software tools for scientists.
If you will be using a laptop, get a lock so it won’t be stolen. Believe me, it happens.
Tips For PhD Students #6: Stock Office Supplies
Let’s continue with one of those simple tips for PhD students that could be applied in any job. Stock supplies!
They might be locked in a cabinet. Or you might have to order them via an Intranet. Whatever they path to them might be, stock post-its, a few pens, highlighters, paperclips, a stapler and some notebooks.
Tips For PhD Students #7: Befriend The (Almighty) Secretary
There’s only a person more powerful than your professor, the person that controls the professor’s agenda. The secretary can help you squeeze an appointment in the most crowded agenda. And she has the power to spank your professor in the ass if he cancels too many meetings with you.
Furthermore a good secretary knows the answer or who to contact to answer any of your bureaucratic questions.
Be nice to the secretary, befriend her and remember not to get angry with her if your prof is late or cancels you appointment, she’s just the messenger.
Tips For PhD Students #8: Register To Courses
Some PhD’s have to follow an extensive curriculum of courses. Others they can voluntarily attend workshops to develop some useful skills.
Whatever your situation is you need to have a clear view on the courses available for you. Which ones are mandatory? Which are optional? Which are nice to do? Which ones should you do to be a better scientist?
For some of the optional courses and skills workshops your boss will have to pay the registration fees (plus allow you to spend the course hours away from your research). It is wise then to sit with him and discuss which courses he will be fine with you following (and him paying).
Now you are done with bureaucracy. You did the time consuming tasks that need little brain activity.
It’s time to have a taste of science in your first week of PhD. That’s why you choose for a PhD in the first place, didn’t you?
Keep reading if you want more tips for PhD students that are a bit scientific.
Tips For PhD Students #9: Download Papers To Read
Read papers. Lots of them. This is what you are going to do at the beginning of your PhD.
Which ones should you read? Ok, this is what you are going to do.
Don’t just ask your boss what to read. Since you are a proactive student (aren’t you?) you are going to use Google Scholar, PubMed and you librarian to find papers related to your research topic.
You are going to read them and check the papers they cite. Make a list of the 10-20 most important according to your opinion first and the number of citations they have, second.
Send this list to your boss and ask if could tell you some good papers you might be missing.
If you want to know how to find good papers to read, the Literature Review Boot Camp has a section on how to find literature. Check it out.
Tips For PhD Students #10: Start A Literature Review
Since we are talking about reading papers, let’s continue with a literature review. You need to find what’s been done before in your field. What still needs to be done. What are the hot topics. You need to see where your research fits.
You need to find papers, read them, summarise them and organise your learnings.
This making sense of what is going on in your field is a literature review. The sooner you start doing a literature review the proper way, the better.
And if you want to do a proper literature review, you need to follow the Literature Review Boot Camp. I could not recommend it enough.
This is one of those tips for PhD students I wish I had used at the beginning of my PhD. I never did a proper literature review. As a result, I believe my overview of my field of research was not accurate the first two years.
Tips For PhD Students #11: Check Previous Thesis Of Your Group
Why should you inspect previous thesis in you group?
You can get an idea of:
- which topics are preferred in your group.
- how many papers PhDs publish before graduating.
- who did what. Useful if you have to use some in-house developed technique or extend on somebody else’s work.
- learn how a PhD thesis is structured in your faculty.
Tips For PhD Students #12: Craft A Research Plan
I know you might find this idea a bit controversial. How can you plan in detail how your research is going to be? Aren’t we trying to expand human knowledge by exploring the unknown?
But at the same time you should have a vague idea of where you are going. What is the question you are trying to answer? What intermediate steps you need to follow to answer that question?
Give a try to this. You can split your PhD in 4-6 blocks or sub-projects. Each one should be ambitious enough and well defined to produce a publication. Otherwise you are not being ambitious.
Try to design it in a way that the first project is easy and that will likely yield results soon. Why? To boost your motivation by seeing progress and early results.
It’s not a good idea to wait 2 or 3 years to see the first results, I can tell you that.
Set a date in the future (in 6 to 12 months) to review if your initial plan is going well or you need to change direction.
Tips For PhD Students #13: Meet your Professor/supervisor
You have made a list of courses you have or want to follow. You have read papers. You have made a draft of a research plan.
Now it’s time to meet with your professor and make sure both on the same page about your PhD. Are your expectations aligned? Do you both agree on what you will be doing and how?
Tips For PhD Students #14: Meet Your New Colleagues
The last tip you should be aware of is to talk directly to your new colleagues. Why not arrange appointments to introduce yourself to your fellow PhDs and postdocs?
Learn what their project is about. This will help you to see how your project fits in the research of the group. Additionally, you will find out who knows what. This is useful when you get stuck and need some expert advice.
Additionally you can ask them for their opinion and experience in doing research in your group/field. How are they linking it? What were the problems they found at the beginning of their PhD?
Tips For PhD Students #15: Be Social
You want to get to know your colleagues and make friends (if you are new in town). At the end of the day we are all social animals, aren’t we?
You can know more of your colleagues by joining them for coffee breaks, for lunch, for any celebration, PhD defines or social gathering (there are plenty at universities)
If you want to make friends outside your research group you have different options. To name a few you can join a sports club, take lessons or join a student association. There are plenty of PhD students associations and groups that organize activities for foreign students.
Remember that you also have a life outside your research.
Bonus PhD Tip 1: Read Our Free eBook
You are starting your PhD. If you follow these tips for PhD students you will have a head start. But a PhD is long and has many ups and downs. How to prepare for what lies ahead for you?
Read our free eBook “17 Simple Strategies To Survive Your PhD”. It’s an easy read that will teach you how to avoid (bad) surprises during your PhD, how to stay motivated and how to be a productive PhD student.
Bonus PhD Tip 2: Get Letter Templates For Phd Students
Do you know how to write them? I didn’t.
I had to figure out myself how to write them. And the result was crappy. Luckily somebody said ‘Here, change my letter and use it for your case’.
That was a time saver. I hope I had those templates earlier.
You can have time saving letter templates if you want. Get our letter templates for PhD students here.